Capital and Labour - Population : The Growth of the Proletariat

IF we are to consider the development of the economic structure of England, one of the first main points of interest is the number of the people.

In 1696 Gregory King estimated the population of England and Wales at 5,500,520: and though it is impossible to ascertain the number with perfect accuracy this estimate may be assumed to be approximately correct, being supported by a Government inquiry of the same date1 and modern statistical study, both of which place the population in 1696 at five million, two hundred thousand. Further, basing his calculations on the amount of wheat produced, Thorold Rogers estimates that the population was a little over five millions,2 calculating that the population had only increased by a million during the seventeenth century, and chiefly in the north, which was farthest away from the districts troubled by civil war.3 This very feeble increase in the population was probably due to the very large death-rate4 which, in turn, was the result of bad sanitation and an erratic and insufficient food supply. Famine and disease were indissolubly connected, and the death-rate in many parts of the country exceeded the birth-rate. Moreover, the rigid mediaeval system, which tied a labourer down to the place in which he was born and prevented him from getting married without the consent of his overlord, had only just disappeared, when the Government interfered to restrain the supply of population from adjusting itself in answer to the demand in various parts of the kingdom. The Law of Settlement made it difficult for people to move about the country. As it was usually necessary for a newly married couple to have a house of their own, marriages were restricted by the supply of houses, and farmers and landlords went so far as to destroy cottages in order to prevent the settling of people who might become a charge upon the parish. This was especially true of rural districts, for the agricultural population remained almost stationary in the hundred years from 1660-1760.5 Moreover, the manufactures of the country had not yet begun to absorb large numbers of the people, though the rise in the population of the county of Lancaster from 1700 to 1750 from 106,200 to 297,400, and in the West Riding of Yorkshire from 236,700 to 361,500,6 shows that the movement of population to the north had already started.

The growth of a large proletariat was essential if there was to be any great development of industry on a capitalist basis,7 and as a large increase of population did occur in England during the eighteenth century, there must have been limiting factors operating in 1700 which were removed easily and rapidly as the century progressed. Chief among these limiting factors had been the poor food supply. The rapid improvement in the methods of agriculture and the developments of transport, levelling up inequalities of distribution did much to remove this obstacles.8

The improvement of communication that took place as the century went on played a very large part in the increase of population, resulting in the adjustment of inequalities of sex distribution and of supply and demand for labour. The population was only increasing slowly, and though the enclosure movement had already produced a considerable number of " rogues and vagabonds," yet until the middle of the eighteenth century the great majority of the village industrial workers still retained rights on the common land. They were not the pure proletariat that is identical with the wage-earning class of modern capitalism. The increase of enclosure, though it caused immediate hardship to many small landowners, was in the long run, in so far as it encouraged and made possible improvements in agriculture, a factor in the increase of population. The enclosure movement, then, may be said to have partly made the wage-earning class by separating the workers from their land, and by supplying them with more food as they increased in numbers.

1 Arnold Toynbee, Industrial Revolution, p. 8. Macaulay, History of England, pp. 219-221.

2 Thorold Rogers, Economic Interpretation of History, 1909, seventh ed., p. 158.

3 Ib., p. 159.

4 Leroy Beaulieu, La Question de la Population, p. 3.

5 Marshall, Principles, pp. 187, 188. First Report of Poet Law Commissioners [1835], p. 303. Middlesex rose from 624,200 in 1700 to 641,500 in 1750. The East Riding of Yorkshire fell from 96,000 to 85,500.

6 First Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1835, p. 303.

7 J. A. Hobson, Evolution of Modern Capitalism, p. 2.

8 "The consumption of the Growth of Grain as well as of the inexhaustible stores of Fuel which nature has lavished upon particular parts of our Island, was limited to the neighbourhood of those parts of our Island which produced them," and now we are " released from treading the cautious steps of our forefathers. The mutual Blessings of the Island are shared by the inhabitants with a more equal handy."­Homer, An Inquiry into the Means of Preserving the Public Roads, 1767, p. 4.

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